Pre-game news & notes: Raptors look to steady defense against Nuggets

The Toronto Raptors are essentially getting the chance for what is essentially a do-over from Sunday’s troublesome loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. With the Denver Nuggets visiting the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday, the game lines up almost exactly the same as two days prior: A desperate team fighting for its playoff life in the Western Conference coming in perhaps a little tired, while the Raptors face urgency only in sorting out their own malaise-based issues. Sleepwalk through large parts of the game again, and Denver is hungry enough, like the Clippers, to take advantage.

“I don’t think they’re more desperate than us,” Fred VanVleet said at shootaround. “I think that’s the way you have to play every game, with that type of desperation and that energy and focus. It’s something we have to do. It’s not rocket science. We’re playing for something too. We’re playing for home court, we’re playing for a lot of things. They’re playing for something, we’re playing for something, it’s just a matter of who’s going to perform better.”

Denver looked anything but the part of likely playoff team on Monday, turning in a shaky performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. They’ll be on the second night of a back-to-back and the sixth game of a hellacious seven-game road-trip here, and three of their starters played 35 minutes or more. Still, this is a team that can score in a hurry, the exact type of offense that has given the Raptors problems all year long – this is a top-10 defense, after all, that’s reached that perch entirely on the back of how they play against poor offenses. Denver hung 129 on them back in November (with an offensive rating of 129.3), and while the Raptors were still figuring themselves out at that point, this has been a season-long trend.

Maybe it’s close enough to the playoffs now, with three losses in their last five games, for the Raptors to finally sharpen things up. They believe the blow-bys on the perimeter and the increased number of breakdowns is a focus, not a schematic, issue, and the long stretch without nearly any rest or practice time is mercifully behind them. (They do have a five-in-seven before the season ends, but it comes following a much-needed one-in-five stretch.) Putting an emphasis on the finer details is a far cry from panic, though, as VanVleet was sure to remind a reporter earlier.

“Panic button? Uhhh, I think the last time I checked we were first in the East still and top-3 record in the league so, uhhh, not sure,” he said. “I don’t know if we have one.”

Come out and beat a top offense like Denver with a strong defensive showing and premature questions about panic will probably subside for a few days. Get 130 or so hung on them again and, well, there will be a lot of eyes on the Boston-Cleveland-Boston set that begins this weekend. For Denver, the urgency is more palpable – they’re 1.5 games back with only a 19-percent chance of getting in. And SBAT doesn’t like their chances today, either.

The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN and Sportsnet 590. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
All of the talk at practice yesterday and shootaround today has focused on the recent struggles of Serge Ibaka. From the outside, a lot of people have wondered why he hasn’t been given the rest treatment, as his stats when rested get a nice little bump and he’s shooting just 38.7 percent and 30.5 percent on threes in March. There was no indication whether that may or may not happen here. For their part, the Raptors are keeping their faith in their starting power forward, trusting that the shooting will come around.

“He’s an elite defender in our league. I think that’s the most important thing,” Dwane Casey said. “I think he’s getting a rhythm and feel for where his shot’s coming from – when he can get a shot, how he can get a shot, pass, drive or shoot, that mentality, and he’s done a good job of developing that part of his game. But I don’t think it deters from the other. I think any player a miss shot is going to deter from your energy level on the defensive end. I think that’s human nature.”

The defensive metrics would disagree about Ibaka’s defense of late, as all of the starters are struggling (Kyle Lowry a little less so by defensive rating). The blame is absolutely a shared one, as OG Anunoby hasn’t been as good as earlier in the year, DeMar DeRozan has geared down on that end after a better-than-usual start to the year, and the team’s pick-and-roll defense has been hammered. What’s perhaps telling, though, is that almost every individual has a worse rating with Ibaka than without him.

There’s some noise here, and I don’t mean to pick on Ibaka (I wasn’t the one asking all of these questions about him, though I do feel the need to try to quantify what seems to be the popular narrative). He’s just very important to what the Raptors want – and can – do to reach their peak. Getting him back into a groove is important the next couple of weeks.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller

Nuggets updates
Denver is expecting to get Gary Harris back from knee injury soon, but he won’t make his return here. He’s still targeting Match 30 from the sounds of it, and in the interim, the Nuggets have been rolling with a Jamal Murray-Will Barton backcourt. Murray has taken small strides as a playmaker (his assist rate has nudged from 14 percent to 16.1 percent in his sophomore season) and he’s in the process of becoming a lethal scorer, but the real key to Denver’s attack comes in the middle. Nikola Jokic has the ball plenty by center standards, and he leads the team in both usage rate (now that Emmanuel Mudiay is chucking elsewhere) and assist rate. It’s a balanced attack that runs a lot through Murray and Jokic, and five regulars – including four starters – have usage rates a little above 20 percent. Democracy! That projected starting lineup has a plus-10.1 net rating in 345 minutes, by the way.

The Nuggets are also still without Tyler Lydon, while Devin Harris is probable. Harris is playing a pretty large role, averaging nearly 20 minutes since coming over from Dallas at the trade deadline and working as the team’s de facto back-up point guard. Richard Jefferson is also around for the #VeteranPresents, and so while he hasn’t been playing a ton, he’ll probably score eight points in a quarter here.

PG: Jamal Murray, Devin Harris, Monte Morris
SG: Will Barton, Malik Beasley
SF: Wilson Chandler, Torrey Craig, Richard Jefferson
PF: Paul Millsap, Trey Lyles, Darrell Arthur, Juan Hernangomez
C: Nikola Jokic, Mason Plumlee, Kenneth Faried
OUT: Gary Harris, Tyler Lydon
TBD:  Devin Harris
G League (no affiliate): None


  • Raptors 905 will open the playoffs at home on Friday against Grand Rapids. You can use promo code REPUBLIC905 for a discount on tickets. All of the usual assignees – Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown, and Malcolm Miller – are expected to be on assignment for the playoffs.
  • As noted on Sunday here, the Raptors opted not to sign Nigel Hayes for the remainder of the season at this time. He’s returning to Westchester and can be signed by any NBA team. The Raptors could always double back and re-sign him later, but there wouldn’t be much benefit to waiting until later to do so, based on my current luxury tax estimates. It seems the 15th-man spot for the playoffs will come down to one of their two-ways.
  • Applications for the Wayne Embry Fellowship open up on April 2. Sam, this year’s fellow, seems to be having a blast and learning a lot.
  • Here’s a nice video from NBA Cares on Teresa Resch, the Raptors’ vice president of basketball operations and player development. She’s a huge, huge part of the Raptors’ success the last few years, on and off the court.

  • Jamal Murray said before the game that he’ll have to see how his body feels at the end of the season, but he hopes to be able to play for Canada in their FIBA qualifiers in June/July.

The line
The Raptors are 8.5-point favorites with a 222.5 over-under.

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